Congress, officially acknowledging that it will have to return to Washington for a post-election session, yesterday approved legislation enabling federal departments and agencies to keep functioning through Nov. 20 while Congress keeps working on a series of bills to fund the government in fiscal 2005.
With spending authority for all departments other than the Pentagon expiring at midnight tonight, Republican leaders officially recognized what has long been apparent: Procedural problems and policy deadlocks will make it impossible for Congress to finish most spending bills before its planned Oct. 8 adjournment. GOP leaders said they tentatively plan to bring Congress back on Nov. 15.
"We will be back Nov. 15, and we will hopefully complete the balance of the appropriations bills," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. But Democrats charged that the delay signifies GOP mismanagement. "It was a confession of failure," Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said.
Of the 13 annual spending bills, only the one funding the Defense Department has been signed into law. GOP leaders still hope to finish five more bills -- those budgeting money for Congress, foreign aid, military construction, and the departments of Interior and Homeland Security -- by the end of next week.
But that still leaves numerous departments and agencies -- including NASA, the State Department, the FBI and the Department of Veterans Affairs -- without a final budget for 2005. The temporary measure passed yesterday allows more than $2 billion once earmarked for Iraq reconstruction to be reallocated to security, law enforcement and public safety in that country, as requested by the administration. It also approves the use of $360 million from the reconstruction fund for restructuring Iraq's debt.
House and Senate Republican leaders have been unable to reach agreement on a new six-year measure authorizing nearly $300 billion worth of highway and transit programs. The current authorizing legislation will expire tonight. GOP officials tried yesterday to work out a deal to extend the authority temporarily. But with differences remaining between the two chambers, Republican leaders appeared to have all but abandoned hopes of completing the six-year bill this year.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.), who chairs the transportation panel of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, supports a six-month extension. Yesterday, Rep. James L. Oberstar (Minn.), the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he, too, favors extending the program until around Memorial Day. "Let's come back next year and do good policy," he said.